Massachusetts should clear juvenile records

Research shows 'expungement' leads to lower adult arrest rates, higher grad rates

A WHO’S WHO crowd of criminal justice leaders gathered at the Seaport Hotel on Monday for the annual fundraising breakfast for the Chelsea-based nonprofit Roca, which works to steer high-risk young people toward positive pursuits. Addressing the audience, Gov. Charlie Baker reflected on recent efforts to increase prison education—a practice that has long been understood to cost-effectively reduce recidivism and prevent crime and victimization—by posing an excellent question. “Why the [humorous pause] did it take so long for us to get around to creating this?” he asked. The governor went on to express optimism about other efforts underway to further improve our criminal justice system, recognizing that there are many other equally straightforward and beneficial changes that we can make.

Providing young people with a legitimate second chance by removing the scarlet letter of a criminal record is perhaps foremost among the low-hanging fruit.  A growing body of evidence suggests that criminal records for youth do more harm than good. At the crossroads when young people seek to gain independence and develop a positive adult identity, the weight of a criminal record makes it difficult to continue education, find work, and form healthy relationships. A teen must disclose even a minor juvenile record on the Common Application for college, and a record can also bar a young person from living with their family in public housing.

Many states seek to lower the collateral consequences of youthful offending by expunging juvenile criminal records. According to a recent study from Michigan State University, individuals convicted as a juvenile are 13 percentage points more likely to remain arrest-free after age 20 and nearly 7 percentage points more likely to graduate from college when they live in one of 14 states were expungement is automatic.

Massachusetts is light-years behind the many states where expungement is allowable by petition, to say nothing of those with automatic expungement of juvenile records. Even youth falsely accused of crimes or arrested and never charged with a crime can never expunge a record in the Commonwealth. Juvenile convictions for misdemeanors like disorderly conduct and disturbing the peace follow many for life, disqualifying them from various forms of public service or from becoming a foster or adoptive parent. For these reasons, the Juvenile Law Center awarded Massachusetts just two out of five possible stars on the confidentiality of juvenile criminal records in a 2014 report.

This dismal rating led legislators, including Senator Karen Spilka and Representatives Kay Khan, Claire Cronin, Gloria Fox, and Carolyn Dykema, to file multiple expungement bills this session. These bills are supported by advocacy groups like Citizens for Juvenile Justice and Teens Leading The Way and community organizations, and have gained more than 50 cosponsors. The Judiciary Committee—led by House chairman John Fernandes and Senate chairman William Brownsberger—extended these bills to June, which means they still have the opportunity to put out an expungement bill this session that meaningfully contributes to criminal justice reform.

When the Judiciary Committee considers key provisions of this legislation, it is important they include automatic expungement instead of expungement that requires a petition, as the research noted above finds that states that require a petition see virtually no reductions in recidivism or gains in education or employment.

It is also critical that the bill extend expungement protection to young adults as well as juveniles. Brain science reveals that young adults still have not fully developed future-thinking. They are more impulsive and prone to make poor decisions. But the science also tells us that these youth are particularly malleable. By helping them correct course, we can avoid a long and costly criminal career.

While community-based organizations like Roca and Lowell-based UTEC have internalized this science and are working hard to serve young adults with developmentally-appropriate practices, too often these well intentioned efforts are up against outmoded legal structures like records that continue to haunt a youth for life, no matter how minor.

As noted in a recent MassINC policy brief, multiple states and many other countries are working to ensure that young adults are consistently served with approaches that prioritize rehabilitation more heavily than their adult justice system. The Judiciary Committee can use the opportunity of a strong expungement bill to begin applying our new understanding of brain science to young adults in Massachusetts.

In debating expungement, legislators must also take into account racial disparities. By the time we reach adulthood, close to one-third of us will have found our way into the back seat of a police cruiser for some type of youthful indiscretion. But those of us from families with means are far more likely to get a legitimate second chance. Research shows that the mark of a criminal record exacts a particularly heavy toll on low-income racial and ethnic minorities. If we want to ensure that ours is an opportunity society where discrimination is not reinforced by public policy, joining the ranks of states that automatically expunge juvenile records is simply the right thing to do.

Meet the Author

Naoka Carey

Guest Contributor, Citizens for Juvenile Justice
Meet the Author

Ben Forman

Research Director, MassINC

About Ben Forman

Benjamin Forman is MassINC’s research director. He coordinates the development of the organization’s research agenda and oversees production of research reports. Ben has authored a number of MassINC publications and he speaks frequently to organizations and media across Massachusetts.

About Ben Forman

Benjamin Forman is MassINC’s research director. He coordinates the development of the organization’s research agenda and oversees production of research reports. Ben has authored a number of MassINC publications and he speaks frequently to organizations and media across Massachusetts.

Meet the Author

Geoff Foster

Guest Contributor, UTEC, Inc.
Massachusetts is waiting for highly anticipated recommendations from the Council of State Governments to sort out more complex criminal justice reform issues for legislative action in the 2017-2018 session. But this is no reason to forestall progress on juvenile expungement, particularly given how far Massachusetts has to go just to catch up with our peers. For Gov. Baker and the other advocates for youth who attended this year’s Roca breakfast, a bill signing in July would go down much better than more head-scratching over why we had to wait so long.

Naoka Carey is executive director of Citizens for Juvenile Justice. Ben Forman is the research director at MassINC. Geoff Foster is director of organizing and policymaking for UTEC, Inc. in Lowell.